St. John Neumann's upcoming SonFest is more than just a church fair.
Yes, there will be all the elements of a fair: mechanical rides, inflatables, music and a petting zoo.
SonFest 2011 will be held over two days, hearkening back to a time when church carnivals signaled the beginning of summer.
But church leaders also have bigger plans. They say that St. John Neumann, under the leadership of a new pastor, is starting to feel like it did decades ago, when the congregation was like a big family.
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Over the years, people moved away and moved on, and the church lost some of the closeness, said Al Tinson, a member for most of the church's 33 years. But now, new people are joining and long-ago members are coming back. Father Patrick Hoare has initiated all kinds of groups and programs to bring people together. The church's Hispanic community is thriving.
Last year, church leaders began planning the first SonFest, and they dreamed big.
One Sunday in February, Hoare told the congregation they needed 200 volunteers to pull it off; 425 signed up that weekend.
The festival committee met with leaders from the Matthews Alive! Festival and from St. Philip Neri Catholic Church in Fort Mill, which hosts a multiday Italian festival, to get ideas and advice.
"It is a monumental undertaking," Hoare said. "What seems like a project that is beyond our capability, is possible when we do it for God's glory and to build a kingdom and the body of Christ. That's what I want us to really experience."
The hope is that SonFest will draw together the church community, and volunteers working the dunking booth or selling tickets will get to know each, and the surrounding community will come to SonFest and have a good time.
"I hope we'll be able to look back at the first SonFest six months from now and say, 'Wow, did that really help build a community,'" Tinson said.
Tinson attributes much of the church's new spark to Hoare, who became St. John Neumann's pastor two years ago.
Hoare, 44, followed a nontraditional path to the priesthood.
Originally from Pennsylvania, he earned an undergraduate degree in business administration and an MBA and worked for Liberty Mutual Insurance for 14 years. He spent six of those years in Charlotte.
In his mid 30s, Hoare says he felt God calling him to something else. Eighteen months after moving to Baltimore to take a promotion with Liberty Mutual, he quit and enrolled in seminary. He asked the Roman Catholic Diocese of Charlotte to sponsor him.
"I chose Charlotte because I loved it here," he said. "I saw just a great opportunity. There's a wonderful Christian and family atmosphere here, and I really felt called to come back here."
He graduated from St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in 2007 and spent two years as assistant pastor at St. Mark Catholic Church in Huntersville before coming to St. John Neumann.
St. John Neumann has more than 4,000 members, but many never see each other because they don't attend the same weekend mass.
SonFest will bring the church's diverse congregation together. Hoare wants the church community to realize that God means for the church to be a family.
"If I've done anything, it's been to awaken in the people who are already here and the people who have joined our community the realization of how we are really a community of faith that is put together in this time and place for a particular reason, and to help each other grow as a people of faith," Hoare said.
Anthony Morlando, president of the parish council and SonFest 2011 chairman, said he's already met many church members he didn't know. He hopes SonFest will grow into an event that people look forward to each year.
"We get so busy in our lives with our day-to-day routines, we forget that we're part of a larger parish family also," Morlando said.